Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

What I am expecting for the future of the church over the next decade.

Posted by on Tuesday, March 24th, 2015 in Minister

Our Presbytery, the Presbytery of Waterloo Wellington, is presently working its way through a visioning process, trying to decide what the priorities of the church will be in the coming decade. As part of this, our facilitator, Peter Coutts, has challenged us to talk about our expectations for the coming years in the church in an online blog. I have responded to that challenge with the following. I am just speaking to my personal expectations. I am sure that others will expect different things. I would encourage you to join the conversation on the Blog that Peter set up. You'll find it here:

Here is what I have written:

As Peter has said, we certainly cannot predict the future as it has a way of surprising us. Nevertheless, as I look forward, I do it with certain expectations. I definitely expect a great deal of change in the coming years – as I have expected it ever since I first started my ministry. One thing that I have seen up until this point is the change never seems to occur as quickly as I have expected it to. So I must say first of all that I have learned to expect that things will take longer to change that I expect.


I do not expect that the trends that we have seen will change dramatically. Overall membership and attendance numbers will continue to decline. More and more people in society will cease to identify with the Christian faith and with organized religion in general. I don’t necessarily see this as a negative trend but it is obviously very challenging to the church and to its continued work.

Because of this, we are likely to see a number of things develop. We will continue to see national organisational and denominational church structures decline. National offices, strapped for resources, will be ever more limited in what they can offer to support the ministry and mission of the church which will render them less relevant. Regional bodies – such as Synods – will continue to decline in relevance and in the resources that they can offer.

These developments don’t necessarily distress me. The way I see it, we are in the death throes of a way of doing and being the church that hasn’t really been working for a while. Some of that structure likely needs to die in order for there to be a resurrection – a new way of being the church that is really effective in the world today.

Sunday Schools

I just feel I have to say something about the matter of declining Sunday School enrollment. This is just a pet peeve of mine. I do not like the hand wringing we often do over declining Sunday Schools. The distress over this fact has an underlying assumption that is dangerous. It is an assumption that we know how Sunday School is supposed to work. Essentially, what we are doing is holding up the model of our church Sunday School programs as they were in the 1960’s and 70’s when our programs were full of kids and bursting at the seams. That, we proudly declare, is what a successful Sunday School looks like and that is what we used to be able to do.

But do you know what? I don’t really see that as a success. Sure, our programs were full of kids in those times. But do you realize that those were the very kids that we lost when they grew up? That  generation, who were kids in the sixties and the seventies, dropped out of the church in far greater numbers than any generation before them. If we’re going to call that success, then I’m not sure we really have a good idea what success is.

I think a little bit of humility is called for. I’m personally very excited about some of the things that we are doing these days and our children’s ministries. But I that doesn't mean that we've necessarily got it right. Nevertheless, there are all kinds of reasons to be hopeful that, with God’s help, we will do better with this generation.


Congregations will continue to be the heart and soul of the church. As larger structures fall away, this will only become more and more true. Yes, we will continue to lose congregations. Some will take longer to die than you would expect but that has always been the case. But, alongside this, we will continue to see congregations of various sizes that remain strong and that get stronger. There will be pockets of healthy, vibrant church life spread throughout our presbytery.

We will continue to see, as has been the case for some time now, that it is congregations that are engaged in their community, that are active in local and larger mission, that have excellent leadership and that can communicate the message of the faith in relevant ways that will be strongest. (Although even congregations that do all of this and do it really well are not guaranteed to thrive as there will continue to be other factors – economic, demographic, etc. – at play.) These healthy and strong congregations will do some really exciting things and will be a joy to their members.

We will likely continue to see that congregations that are strong and vital will seek out the resources that they need to continue to strengthen wherever they can find them. They will not insist on or seek out denominational resources as they have in the past. This will partly be because those resources will not be there, but also because other agencies will be able to adapt to the changing circumstances much more quickly and flexibly.

We will not lose our central focus on essentials of our faith. Jesus Christ will remain our only king and head. We will continue to acknowledge the Scriptures as the authoritative witness to the living Word of God. We will still practice sacraments, pray and seek and find God through faith.
But some things will change. Our churches will likely find the need to set themselves apart from some of the more extremist Christian faith groups. For me, that means we need to:
  • Practice greater inclusion – finding a place for all kinds of people who live and think out their faith differently from us.
  • Clearly reject anti-science strains of Christianity. (e.g. those who reject evolution)
  • Find ways other than substitutionary atonement to talk about what Jesus has accomplished for us.
  • Read the Bible for what it is – a collection of various kinds of ancient literature – rather than forcing literal interpretations onto it.
  • Focus our Christian life and work on this world and not on another world to come.
  • Actively and positively engage the fastest growing religious group in Canada: the atheists
This is the church that I expect and this is the kind of church that we need the presbytery to support.
What that means for me is that the presbytery needs to be careful to use its resources (time, talent, energy, financial and real estate assets) very wisely to support the church that will be.

As far as I am concerned
  • There is no point spending our resources on maintaining structures or infrastructures that are dying or becoming irrelevant.
  • We need to invest in creating strong, healthy and vibrant congregations, especially in places where circumstances like economics, demographics and other factors are in our favour.
  • We need to create and support strong leaders (lay and clergy).
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An Experiment in Sharing

Posted by on Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 in Minister

I have had too many conversations with people in the church lately that have gone kind of like this:

Someone will remark on a church service or something we have done in the church and they will say how nice and meaningful it was. Then they will close by saying something like, "It's a shame that there weren't more people here to be a part of it."

I used to nod my head and agree when people said things like that, but lately I've been wondering why I don't respond in a different way.

Why don't I say, "Yeah, I know. By the way, who did you invite this morning and who did you tell about what we were doing here?"

Actually, I know why I don't ask questions like that -- it's because I know what the answer would be. Most people would never even consider talking to anyone about what goes on in their church.

There is an assumption behind those laments over lack of attendance that people make. People are assuming that going to a church service is something that people automatically see as something worthwhile. It is a kind of "If you build it, they will come," mentality -- the kind of thinking that was highlighted in the movie, Field of Dreams. We assume that if you just build a good church service or program people will just come.

That may have been true in an age when society in general saw church attendance as a good and even a necessary thing -- when there were society pressures that drove people into church.

I don't know if you have noticed this, but we're not living in that world anymore.

People won't just go to church anymore just because it is a good thing to do or because there is a nice service. But they might go if they hear that there is something going on that speaks to them and their life. They might go if someone tells them about it. They're even more likely to go if someone invites them or, even better, goes with them. But they won't just decide to go on their own.

But we don't talk about what we do in church and we don't invite people -- hardly ever. We need to change that mentality because,frankly, we do some pretty good and worthwhile stuff -- stuff that will benefit others a great deal.

That is why I created the following video which introduces my upcoming series of sermons. Take a look at it now.

The reason why I created this was to give the people of St. Andrew's an easy way to share what we are doing at St. Andrew's. It is something worth sharing. And this is my challenge to the people of St. Andrew's: share this video.

Post it and share it on Faceboook. You can just paste something like this into your status:
Here is what we are talking about at my church next month. It should be interesting:
Tweet it -- how about something like this:
St. Andrew's #Hespeler is talking about money in new ways next month. #Money #Jesus #share#money #rootofallevil #share

Or you can just email the link to your friends:
Here is what I'm going to be learning and thinking about next month:

We have set the goal of having this video viewed over 750 times in the next ten days, can you help us get there?
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The Other Visit of the Other Magi

Posted by on Monday, December 29th, 2014 in Minister

I do not usually post my sermons in my blog like this, but I was honestly fascinated by what I discovered in my research around the story of the Magi this year. Did you know that there was another story about the journey of another set of Magi that Matthew might have had in his mind as he wrote his story about the birth of the Messiah?

      In May of 2003, the world was treated to a spectacle that it would not soon forget. The Iraq War had begun with an invasion less than two months before. And in those two months the American and allied forces had made some remarkable progress, had taken Baghdad and were apparently in charge of the government.
      And so that May, President Bush took a bit of a victory lap. He landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier that had just returned from the Persian Gulf wearing a flight suit and, standing in front of a banner that read mission accomplished,” he declared that major conflict in Iraq had come to an end.
      It is an event that I hardly need to describe to you. I’d probably only have to say a few key words like Bush and aircraft carrier for you to bring the whole image up in your minds even though it happened over a decade ago. Everyone remembers it. And they don’t just remember it because it had all the pageantry of your typical political photo op and publicity stunt, though it certainly had that. People remember it because that particular photo op was demonstrated to be horribly empty and meaningless and because that happened so very quickly.
      It wasn’t long at all before everyone could clearly see that combat in Iraq was far from over, that the mission was certainly not accomplished and that things were about get a whole lot worse before they got any better – if indeed they ever got much better. People remember it because it turned out to be a perfect illustration of what was wrong with the whole situation.
      Now, I don’t bring all this up today to criticize Bush or the Iraq war. I have no particular axe to grind there. I bring it up just to show you how an event like that one, one that symbolizes the problems within a system, stays in the public consciousness for a long time. Why I would imagine that, even ten or twenty years from now when someone brings up that event, people will still remember it and even be able to picture it even if they didn't see it when it happened.
      I mention that because the Gospel of Matthew was written only about twenty years after a very similar mission accomplished event. It happened in 66 ad. It happened in Rome but was based on the conclusion – or what was supposed to be the conclusion – of a war with Iraq and Iran or, as it was known at the time, the Kingdom of Parthia.
      The war is not important and you hardly need to understand what it was about. Basically, for years the Roman Empire and the Parthians had been fighting over a little kingdom – the Kingdom of Armenia – that lay between them. The Romans had controlled Armenia by choosing the kings who ruled it for years. But the Parthians didn’t like that and so Armenia became the focus of war between the world’s two greatest superpowers. And let’s just say that in the years leading up to 66 ad, the Romans basically bungled the war with Parthia. The result was that Rome and Parthia came to a peace agreement that was absolutely humiliating to Rome.
      The agreement was this: the Parthian king would place his brother on the throne of Armenia and the Parthians would retain the right to name all future kings and heirs to the throne of Armenia. In the deal the Romans only got one thing. They got the right to crown the king that the Parthians chose. Yes, you heard that right, the Parthians would pick the king and then the Roman Emperor would be required to crown him. The Parthians got everything and the Romans got an empty, meaningless symbolic act.
      But in 66 ad the Roman Emperor, a fellow named Nero (maybe you’ve heard of him), decided to turn this embarrassing peace treaty into his own personal mission accomplishedphoto op. He summoned the new Armenian king (the brother of the King of Parthia) to Rome to receive his crown. Sure it was absolutely meaningless that Nero got to be the one to place it on his head but Nero would turn this meaningless act into a grand spectacle.
      And what a spectacle it was! People all throughout Rome and every city they passed through on the way turned out to see the embassy as they made their way to the Emperor. Travelling with the king were a number of priests of the Parthian god Zoroaster. They were astrologers and holy men and they were called magi by the Parthians. If anything, the Romans were more fascinated by the magi than they were with the king. The magi were mysterious wise men who seemed to have so much power and Rome was totally star-struck.
      The king and the magi arrived before Emperor Nero. They knelt down and paid him homage, declaring him to be the ruler of all the earth, though everyone knew it was a lie and Nero had no power over Parthia. Then Nero placed a diadem on the king’s head and then threw an enormous party for the whole city. After the magi left – returning home by a different road – Nero even took the extraordinary step of closing the doors to the temple of Janus in the city. The Romans only closed those doors when they were at peace with all their enemies. By closing the doors, Nero was proclaiming that he had brought about a permanent peace on earth and good will to all men.
      It was all a sham, of course. Within a few months the doors to the temple of Janus were wide open again and Rome was at war. The war with Parthia raged on for about another fifty years and caused no end of suffering. Nero had accomplished nothing with his little stunt and it wasn’t long before everybody knew it. So, yes, the story of the visit of the magi to Rome was told over and over again as the perfect criticism of Roman emperors at their worst. After a decade or two, I’m sure that all you had to do was mention a few key words like magi or king or kneeling down and paying homage or returning home by a different road and everyone knew exactly what you were talking about.
      And a decade or two after this memorable spectacle in Rome, a man that we know as Matthew wrote the gospel that bears his name. Do you think it is just a coincidence that, after a few opening remarks, he started that gospel with an account of some magi who travelled from Parthia (because that is where magi were found) to kneel down and pay homage to someone and then return home by a different road?
      Now, I have no idea how much information Matthew may have had about an actual visit of magi to the home of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. I am sure that he did use traditions of the early church as well as many passages from the Old Testament when he wrote this account of the birth of Jesus. But I am also pretty sure that, when he told his story of the visit of the magi (translated as wise men in our reading this morning) he went out of his way to tell the story in a way that reminded many people of the famous story of the time that a bunch of magi came to Rome 
      But why would Matthew do something like that – make a reference to what we would consider a purely political and secular event in his account of the most divine of events: the coming of God’s Messiah into the world? Well, the fact of the matter is that the visit of the magi to Nero wasn’t just a political event. Remember that Emperor Nero was not just a political leader. He was also a god and the whole spectacle of the magi (the priests of a foreign god) bowing down before him had as much to do him flaunting his divinity as it did with him exercising his imperial power.
      I think that Matthew would have been only too happy to remind his readers of Nero’s mission accomplished event because it may have looked pretty impressive on the outside, but it was soon shown to be completely empty. And Matthew knew of another king – one that maybe didn’t look so impressive on the outside – one who was, in fact, rejected by the powerful and the important of this world. But when it came to substance and power that really mattered and when it came to a vision of the world as God had always intended that it should be, Matthew would take that king anytime.
      So Matthew told the story of the visit of the magi to the child Jesus in such a way as to make it clear how different a king Jesus really was – to make it clear that Jesus was not about appearance and photo ops but about changing the world in real and substantial ways.
      And I think that all of this is important because we live in a world where appearance often seems to matter more than anything. It’s important because 2015 will be an election year in Canada. And elections really ought to be an opportunity to talk about big and substantive issues. We ought to get a chance to talk about what kind of country we want to be, what our real priorities are and what policies reflect our deepest beliefs. But do you suppose that is what our political discussions will look like in 2015? Or will we spend a whole lot of time talking about appearances? And will our leaders put most of their energy into setting up symbolic photo ops?
      Please understand, I’m not necessarily blaming the politicians for this. I am sure that many of them would really like to spend their energy on the real and substantive issues. The problem is much bigger than individual politicians. There is a tendency in our society to focus on the surface and the appearance of things and politicians are only responding to that when they set up their photo ops and attack each other over the appearance of things.
      But when you see a politician speaking to the public with carefully laid out representatives of different ethnic and cultural groups standing behind him or her, when you hear announcements that are all about the appearance of commitment to some particular cause but that have no real effective measures behind them, when you hear of committees or commissions that are set up to explore various problems whose recommendations you know very well will be completely ignored – and I promise you that you will see a whole lot of all of that next year – remember one thing.
      Remember that there is another way of doing things. There is a kingdom that is founded on the idea that we can do more for this world than put together photo ops and carry out meaningless symbolic gestures. The kingdom of God is not founded on such things but rather on the foundation of a person who showed us in living and breathing form what the love and compassion of God looked like.
      We don’t have to be taken in and manipulated by meaningless gestures orchestrated by our political class. We know they’re empty long before the rest of the world catches on.
      It is far too easy to get cynical when you look at the systems of our modern world – to think that nothing can ever change. By telling his story of the magi, what Matthew was saying was that the world did change and so it can change. It was that simple to him. Will you believe it?

For those interested in the primary historical sources, accounts of the visit of the Armenian king to Nero are found in Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Nero, 13 and in Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXIII, 1-7. The explicit mention that the king brought Magi with him and that they captured the imaginations of Nero and the people is found in Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, XXX, Cassius Dio states that the day was called "golden" by the people of Rome.
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Basket Night at Thursday Night Supper & Social

Posted by on Sunday, December 28th, 2014 in Minister

Got a request from The Cambridge Times for a brief description of one of our Christmas traditions from the Thursday Night Supper and Social. Looks like they finally didn't have room to print it. But I still thought that there is something well worth sharing there. This is what I wrote:

Thursday evenings from Thanksgiving to Easter, St. Andrew's Hespeler Presbyterian Church on Queen St. in Hespeler opens its doors to all who wish to come in for supper. The welcome is always warm and the food, provided free of charge, is always tasty and nutritious.

The best thing about the Thursday Night Supper and Social, however, is the community that has formed over the years it has been offered. Both our guests and our volunteers look forward each week to the opportunity to meet and talk and catch up on what has been going on in each other's lives. There is plenty of mutual support and encouragement.

All of this becomes even more evident as Christmas approaches. For example, at the most recent Thursday night, the volunteers wanted to prepare special baskets full of treats for our guests. With the help of many in the congregation and in the community, over forty baskets were filled with a mix of practical and seasonal gifts. These were distributed to all the adults present on Thursday, December 11 in a wonderful party-like atmosphere. Everyone left with a lovely basket to put them in the Christmas spirit. A distribution of gifts to the children and youth who are part of the lively community will take place before Christmas.
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Why Judas the Galilean belongs in my nativity scene

Posted by on Wednesday, December 17th, 2014 in Minister

Why, exactly, did Mary and Joseph set out on such a dangerous journey in such a dangerous time. This is one aspect of the story that has never made much historic sense. The story seems to be saying that the Romans decided to conduct a census in a way that makes no practical sense – that they required that the people be registered, not in the places where they lived, but rather in the places where their ancestors came from. That, when you think about it, is a very silly way to hold a census. The whole point of taking a census, if you’re a Roman, is to find out where people live so that you can find them and tax them later. That is why the Romans always took censuses in the way that they are still taken to this very day - making sure that people were registered where they actually lived. There is no evidence that they ever took a census in a way that Luke seems to be describing.

But what if Luke isn't saying that the people all traveled to their ancestral homes because the Romans made them do it? What if they maybe even did it to spitethe Romans? That might make more sense. Luke tells us that Caesar Augustus ordered that the people be counted, yes, but he doesn't say that Caesar ordered them to return to their ancestral homes – just that the people did that. What if it was someone else who told them to do that? And what if that person was Judas the Galilean?

Judas was a rebel against Rome (we know that from historical records) and Judas was particularly upset about the census that the Romans were holding and the heavy new taxes that came with it. But we also know that Judas was not the kind of rebel who actually employed violence or terror to achieve his goals. There are no accounts of Judas attacking anyone but there are plenty of accounts of Judas and his followers being attacked by the Romans. The evidence seems to indicate that his revolt was essentially nonviolent – a campaign similar to Ghandi's campaign against British rule in India or like Martin Luther King Jr's Civil Rights movement in the United States.

The histories also tell us what Judas’ goals were. He set out to oppose slavery and to allow the people "to regain prosperity and retain their own property." That is what the historian, Josephus, says in his book, the Antiquities of the Jews (18:4-8) But how could he accomplish such lofty goals without resorting to violence? One way may have been suggested to him in the pages of the Old Testament.
There was an ancient law in Israel that required that, every 50 years, a special festival should be called: the Festival of Jubilee. It was a festival to celebrate God’s gift of land to all the families of Israel. And the first thing that was supposed to happen during the Jubilee was that every family was to return to their ancestral home. And there they were to claim the land that God had said was rightfully theirs. And during the festival the land was to be returned to that family.

If we cannot find any basis in Roman law or practice for all the people of Galilee and Judea being required to return to their ancestral homes, perhaps we had better look to the Old Testament to find that basis. There is only one Old Testament law that required all of the people to return to their ancestral homes: the Jubilee law. So maybe the Romans ordered up a census but somebody else must have called for a Jubilee - called on all the people to travel all over the place and did it for the express purpose of messing with the Roman census.

I think that the person who called for that Jubilee was none other than Judas the Galilean. It was one of the few things that he could do, without resorting to violence, that would actually cause a great deal of trouble to the Romans and the process of their hated census. He must have set the entire countryside into chaos as the Romans prepared to count the people.

If that is the case, then Judas the Galilean is an essential part of the Christmas story. He set the whole thing in motion. Yes, Caesar Augustus may have ordered a census of all the people but Judas was the one who got the whole countryside in motion, who convinced Mary and Joseph to make that long and difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And they weren't just doing it to be good citizens of the Roman Empire like we often assume. They were doing it because they really believed that it was God's will for them to return to Bethlehem and claim the land there that had once belonged to Joseph's family.

So maybe we ought to make some room in our nativity scenes for Judas – for someone who sets out to make the world to conform more closely to the will of God but who does it without violence – who inspires people to claim what God intends for them to possess for themselves: their freedom and the means to be the people that God always intended for them to be. And, after all, isn’t that what Christmas is about too – at least when we get rid of all the things that our modern world has tried to make Christmas about instead?

For more information on the place of Judas the Galilean in the Christmas story, read Caesar's Census, God's Jubilee.
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Book Discussion Series

Posted by on Monday, October 6th, 2014 in Minister

I am very excited to offer a book discussion series on my book Caesar's Census, God's Jubilee.

The Gospel of Luke alone tells the story of the birth of Jesus set against the background of a census taken on the orders of Caesar Augustus. This historical setting has always raised serious questions: Was there ever really such a census? Why does Luke describe the census as being carried out in a manner that does not fit with what we know of Roman practices and policies?

This book struggles with questions like those in a creative way which leads to some surprising new ways to understand Luke's timeless story of Mary and Joseph and their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Part investigation, part exercise in creative imagination, this book will help you to see the Christmas story in a whole new way.

The discussion will be held on Wednesday evenings from Wednesday, October 15 through to Wednesday December 3, 2014

We will meet at 7:30 pm in the Foyer at St. Andrew's Hespeler Presbyterian Church, 73 Queen St. E., Cambridge, ON

These are the planned sessions:
October 15:            The Journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem
October 22:            Should the Two Birth Accounts be Harmonized?
October 29:            When is Luke Saying that Jesus was Born?
November 5:          The Old Testament Ideal of Jubilee
November 12:        The Jubilee in the Gospel of Luke
November  19:       Two Nonviolent Insurgencies
November 26 :       The Call to Jubilee
December 3:           What is Truth? and Jesus’s Coin Trick
Provided you have read the book, you should be able to join in the discussion at any point

Participation in this group is free of charge but participants will need to have read the book to participate. The book is available in print at and at select local book stores. You may also purchase a copy at St. Andrew's Hespeler. The e-book is available through many online e-book sellers including Amazon, iBooks and Kobo. Please call the church at 519-658-2652 or contact [email protected] if you need any assistance finding the book or if you have any questions. The print edition sells for $11.95. The price of the e-book varies accord to the vendor, but should be approximately $4.

In addition I will be leading a parallel discussion in a Facebook group called Caesar's Census, God's Jubilee Discussion Group.

I will be posting discussion starters on the chapters at around the same time that I am preparing for the discussion group at the church. The group is public (I hope that doesn't get me into any trouble!) and everyone is invited to join in.

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It’s a Love Story

Posted by on Saturday, October 4th, 2014 in Minister

True story:

Today I had the great honour and privilege of presiding at a marriage. As we prepared, I asked the couple, as one will often do, how they met.

They told me the story of how they had come to know each other while they were both working in different departments at the local Rona store. He worked in plumbing and she was in the flooring department. It was just a nice little story and they were a very nice couple who obviously loved each other very much and so their story put me in mind of the greatest love story every written.

That was why I started my sermon today like this:

"If you are at all like me, you found that to be a beautiful story - a classic love tale. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of the greatest love story of all times. Correct me if I'm wrong, but when William Shakespeare took up his pen to write what many consider his best play and what was certainly his best romantic play, didn't he open it with these words:
"Two sections, both alike in dignity
In the fair Rona, where we lay our scene,         
She toils in the flooring dispensary,       
He, with the pipes among the porceline.
From forth these various store departaments.
A pair of star-cross'd lovers share their lives;   
And join together with excitement         
To be the best of all husbands and wives."
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The Lighthouse Society

Posted by on Saturday, September 13th, 2014 in Minister

Once upon a time, there was a lovely little coastal village. Life was good and peaceful there but there was one little problem. The nearby coast was treacherous and unforgiving to passing sailors. It seemed like there were shipwrecks just about every week. And so the villagers all got together and decided to do something about this terrible problem.

They decided to pool all of their resources and build a tall and beautiful tower. It would stand on the shoreline and offer warning and guidance to all who passed that way. They formed a society to make sure that the light was always lit, that the foghorn was ready to go off in bad weather and to ensure that the tower continued to stand and do its job. It was a wonderful achievement that made them rightfully proud.

There were some other benefits of all this work. In those days, the Lighthouse Society was the most important and most active association in the village. Everyone wanted to be part of it. Meetings of the society became the most important social events of the year. They had fun together, talked about important things and raised the funding to keep everything going. They never forgot, though, that they only existed to offer guidance and protection to passing ships.

But time went by and it somehow became easier for the people to focus on the meetings themselves and especially on what they were getting out of them. The meetings were a comfortable part of some of the people's lives and so they got upset when things happened during them that were unexpected or unusual. But then there were others who complained that the meetings were too boring if it was always the same old thing.

As the culture of the village changed, people started to have other options for social interaction than just belonging to the Lighthouse Society. Feeling that they weren't quite getting everything that they wanted from the meetings, they started attending sporadically or even not at all. This led to a general feeling of discouragement in the society. Alarmed, the leadership began to focus on the meetings of the society to make sure that they pleased to greatest number of people possible.

This was not an easy thing to accomplish, of course. They spent a lot of time and a fair bit of money trying to come up with solutions. It was an all-absorbing problem and so you can hardly blame them if, in the midst of all that important work, nobody bothered to change the light bulb in the tower when it burned out. And when the foghorn rusted out, nobody bothered to fix it. They had other things on their minds.

Of course, it was a shame about the shipwreck...
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One week after returning from our mission trip. (Why it is sometimes hard to adapt when you come home).

Posted by on Thursday, July 17th, 2014 in Minister

While we were there in Winnipeg for our mission trip, we spent five days in full-time connection with the various parts of the Winnipeg Inner City Mission. During that short time, a number of very significant things happened:
  • A young girl in the church went missing from her family.
  • Another young girl, in desperate need of a new kidney, successfully underwent surgery that would allow her continue her daily dialysis
  • The church was putting together household items to set up housekeeping for a young mother and her children as she was in the process leaving an abusive relationship.
  • A resident in A Place of Hope celebrated two years of sobriety.
  • Another resident reached the end of her time in A Place of Hope and made arrangements to move out and begin a new and exciting phase in her life
  • A church picnic (that had been as good as cancelled) was resurrected and organized in about two hours.
This was, as far as I can tell, a fairly typical week at Winnipeg Inner City Mission with big doses of both good and bad news and the church doing everything that it could to help when needed and to celebrate when that was called for. In addition we heard some heart rending (and also some heart uplifting) stories of people dealing with some very big things in their personal lives. I can't imagine what that is like for the staff and volunteers who are there week in and week out and have to deal with all of it. I know that I will continue to hold them up in my prayers that they might have the spiritual stamina to continue their vital work of living out the love of Christ.

But, despite the high pressure of the ministry there, I must admit that I have found it a little bit hard to come back an reenter the day-to-day church life at home. As hard as some of the things that we saw going on were, at least it was always clear what was important and what really mattered. There was a clarity and an immediacy to the needs that they faced that was undeniable.

Now, I am quite aware that the people in my church and in all of our churches often have problems and crises and losses that are very difficult and that are deeply disturbing. They also celebrate very important and meaningful milestones and victories. And I am deeply grateful that I am often given the privilege of being there and ministering to people at those very significant times in their lives.

But, though the problems and issues can be very difficult at times, people's lives are generally much more stable that what you tend to find in the inner city of Winnipeg. We are not constantly bombarded with one crisis after another. What's more, while the people involved in the Winnipeg Inner City Mission are very quick and eager to share what they are struggling with - in many ways, the prayers of intercession for the families of the church was the most important time in their worship together - often our people are slow to share some of their deep personal struggles.

So the reality is that we spend less time dealing with deep personal or family crises in our churches. That is a blessing, of course, but does it mean that we have fewer problems overall? Not really.

There is a popular meme that makes the rounds on the internet from time time time. It is called "First World Problems." The meme mocks the way that people in the prosperous nations of the world get all hung up on problems that are of little immediate importance especially in the face of the poverty, disease and war that plague so many people who live in the Third World. Coming back from a mission trip in the inner city of Winnipeg, I recognize that we often do the same thing in our "First World" churches. When we are not overwhelmed with problems and issues and decisions of ultimate importance, we tend to take our other, much less significant problems and decisions and invest ultimate importance in them.

We do this all the time in the church. And so issues like the following can become major crises in churches:
  • Someone wants to move a piece of furniture and someone objects.
  • A committee is short of members
  • Someone doesn't like the hymn selection one Sunday
  • Someone is hurt when their idea is not adopted
Of course, these are all issues that have to be dealt with in some productive way, but we tend to make them more important than they really are. They take too much emotional energy and administrative time and we have less and less or ourselves left to devote to the things that are of ultimate importance.

I want to be clear here. I'm not complaining that this is something that self-centred people in the church are constantly doing (though, of course, that does happen). I am saying that I do it to myself as much as anyone does it to me. I make things that don't matter very much too important. I judge myself and my ministry in terms of solving or avoiding those kinds of problems. In fact, I will often make them more important than anyone else ever does. The results can be very discouraging and very draining.

At Winnipeg Inner City Mission, God was never too far from their awareness because they needed God's presence just to make it through the day. If we complain that God often feels too distant, could it be because we are investing too much of ourselves in things that don't matter that much?

It is my hope that I can hold on to the sense of what really matters that was so powerful in Winnipeg and let it guide me in where I put my energy back in Hespeler. I also hope that, by keeping close ties with WICM, we might also greatly strengthen our focus at St. Andrew's Hespeler.
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Why it is Important that we Came

Posted by on Friday, July 11th, 2014 in Minister

Our trip to Winnipeg has been short - too short we all agree. It seems like we just arrived, have just gotten to know the people there and to appreciate everything that is so special about them and we have to go. But there is absolutely no feeling in the group that it was not worth the effort to get here for a few days.

Why are we so sure that it was vital that we come? Because we have received that message loud and clear from everyone at all involved in the ministry that we have met and from the children and young people and families. Is that because of all the work that we did for them? Well, not exactly. They certainly appreciated everything that we did. Whether it was painting Flora House (and, yes, we did manage to get the main hall and the front and back entrances painted in our time with a little help from Derek) or organizing clothes and goods in the miracle store, weeding Papa's Garden, helping to keep the kids or youth organised and safe on outings or cleaning out mountains of cardboard, everything was fully appreciated. Rev. Margaret Mullin's head seemed to be constantly at work trying to come up with something else for us to do. But we were appreciated more than what we did.

From the moment we arrived, Rev. Mullin made one thing perfectly clear: we would have to leave our mark behind us. It would not be enough to paint Flora House a nice bright colour. We would have to each leave our personal handprints behind us, though she did allow us to decide what our hand prints would look like and we chose to arrange them in the colour wheel that they use at Anishanabe.

See, they caught me red handed.

In addition, the painting of a new mural by our team in the Miracle Store was deemed so important that Alexis, Gabrielle and Joni were given almost all of our last day to work on it. This was clearly a priority. Why? I mean, yes, the mural that Alexis designed is beautiful and it will be enjoyed for a long time. But why was it so vital?

The answer to that question may be found in a woman named Jane. She is a wonderful, beautiful person who runs the Miracle Store where she gives away clothes, food and other items to whoever comes in for next to nothing. Jane is a registered nurse, a grandmother and is about the sharpest person I have ever seen when it comes to dealing with people who might want to take advantage of the situation. She seemed to connect with our group right away and to be immediately fond of us. But she especially loved Alexis and Gabrielle. In fact, by the last day, she was determined to find a way to adopt them and keep them!  Her understanding of what they were doing by painting the mural was clear: they were leaving a little bit of themselves behind. And in response to that gift, Jane did something truly extraordinary.

Some First Nations people do not like to have their picture taken. They find it disrespectful - as if someone is stealing a piece of themselves from them. Jane is one such native woman. Through many years working with Winnipeg Inner City Mission, she has always refused to have her picture taken even by people that she loves dearly. But on the last day, once the mural had been finished, a miracle occurred. Joni respectfully asked Jane if she would consent to have her picture taken with the mural and the girls and she agreed. She did not do so lightly. In fact, she had considered the possibility long and hard the night before.

I have a copy of the picture with Jane, but I will not be sharing it here on this blog because I understand that it was Jane's intention to give a gift to Gabrielle and Alexis - a little piece of herself willingly given for them to take with them just as they were leaving a piece of themselves in the mural. It was a very special and precious gift but it was a private gift for them - one that they will long treasure. It doesn't belong on the internet.

Here is my understanding of why our coming to them is so important to them. Native ministry in the inner city of Winnipeg is tough - really tough. But one thing that makes it tougher is the sense that no one else cares. Yes, the national church does support some of the ministry positions through Presbyterian Sharing... and, yes, there are many faithful supporters spread across the country, but when you are faced with so many examples of apathy and even open hostility to the work being done there, it is very easy to fall into the feeling that you are all alone and that nobody really cares. When people like us come and are not afraid to roll up our sleeves and do some work, it is a vital reminder that people - white church people - do care a great deal. It lifts their spirits to know that they are not alone. But the trips are short and the people leave too soon (way too soon it seemed in our case). That is why it is so vital to them that we leave a piece of ourselves behind. They need to remember us. They need reminders on their walls and on their sidewalks (like in this cement poured by a previous team outside the miracle store) so that they do not forget us and fall back into despair. It matters that we came.

So if anyone out there is considering making a mission trip to the Winnipeg Inner City Mission, we can highly recommend it. You will make a difference. You will feel loved and appreciated. It will matter that came.

We are home now and this is my blog for the final day there. But I know that I am not finished reflecting on our time there. Give me a few more days to process and I am sure I'll have lots more to say. Thanks for listening


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